Owning a dog is one of the greatest joys we can experience as humans. They provide companionship, protection, and in some cases, help you meet your basic needs. There is also growing evidence that having a dog companion can also help you manage post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is one of the reasons so many veterans are adopting dogs and why there are programs springing up all over the country helping to train service dogs that are equipped to assist veterans with PTSD and other disabilities.
How Can Owning a Dog Help You Emotionally?
Dogs can be a responsibility, but owning one also offers a lot of benefits, especially when it comes to managing emotions and mental health. For instance:
- Dogs offer unconditional love and help you feel the same way in return
- Dogs make for great companions when you’re alone
- Dogs are good at taking orders and are eager to please
- Dogs are entertaining and can provide hours of physical activity
- Dogs can assist with everyday tasks and can provide security if there are health or safety risks
- Dogs encourage you to get out and about, socialize, and spend time outdoors
Bringing a dog into your home can help you a variety of practical and emotional ways, and for many people, does more than years of therapy. Having an instant companion who is loyal and wants to be at your side is one of the best ways to feel better about all of your challenges.
One of the most important ways dogs help veterans is by assisting those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Recovering from PTSD is not like recovering from a physical illness. Studies show that each day is an opportunity to feel better and recover a little bit more. Living with a dog can make the transition to civilian life easier and make living with PTSD less of a challenge. It’s a great addition to other therapies and medications designed to treat PTSD.
Dogs provide the companionship many veterans need to help them recover from PTSD.
Service Dogs and Emotional Support Dogs
There are two different types of dogs that can help veterans deal with civilian life.
Service dogs are trained to do specific tasks. They have participated in more training programs than emotional support dogs and they have special skills other dogs don’t have. For instance, trained service dogs are able to assist people who struggle with sight. They can pick up items, offer guidance, alert family members to medical emergencies, and help if someone has balance issues.
Service dogs are trained to behave in a manner that would not be “normal” for a family pet. They are able to work with their handler in a way that makes it easier to manage a disability. They are working dogs and while they, of course, provide companionship, that is not their primary role.
Trained service dogs are permitted to be in public and private places where pets and emotional support dogs might not be allowed to access. Service dogs are a tool, much like a wheelchair or walker, but they are a living animal and can be asked to leave if they are not behaving according to service dog guidelines.
Emotional support dogs provide assistance to those with mental health challenges. They help their owners feel better, but they are not necessarily specially trained to do any particular task. Regular pets can be emotional support animals, as long as a mental health care doctor provides a letter confirming the owner’s mental health disability and the need for a dog to provide emotional support.
Keep in mind, emotional support dogs do not have special legally protected permission to go to public places where dogs are not normally allowed. A service dog might be able to go into a store or restaurant, but an emotional support dog would not. There are instances in which special permission could be granted, but it is not as cut and dry as the laws are regarding service dogs.
For more information on the difference between service dogs, emotional support dogs, and therapy dogs, check out this information from the United States Dog Registry.
Dogs for Veterans
The Veterans Administration is conducting ongoing research concerning the ability of emotional support animals and service dogs to help vets with PTSD. The VA does not currently provide service dogs to veterans, but will if the studies show a positive link between care of veterans and dogs.
For more information on the studies being conducted, check out this information from the American Medical Association.
Dogs for Veterans FAQ
It should come as no surprise that veterans and their family members have questions about service dogs and how they can help with recovery and return to civilian life. Some of the most common questions include:
How do I get a service dog?
There are many organizations that match veterans with service dogs. Many not only match but also provide training for the dogs and for the veteran-dog team.
How are service dogs trained?
There are professional trainers that help train service dogs but, in many cases, veterans and their service dogs train together once the animal has the basics down. This enhances their ability to work as a team and build a strong relationship.
I have a dog. Can it be trained to be a service dog?
In most cases, the answer is “no.” The job of a service dog is challenging and most dogs that have adjusted to their non-service dog lives will find it tough to adapt to working. In nearly every case, the training for a service dog begins when the dog is just 8 – 12 weeks old. There are exceptions, of course, but, in most cases, you’ll find you’ll have issues with support if you try to train an adult dog as a service animal.
Is there a fee to get a service dog for vets?
There are many programs that do not charge any fees to train and provide a service dog to a veteran. Hero Dog does not charge any application, training, or adoption fees. Owners of the dog will need to pay for veterinary care throughout the dog’s life, but there might be programs or grants available in your area to help with these expenses.
If you’d like to know more about being paired with a service dog, contact the Hero Dog program.